Comments by Karim Mezran at the 64th CHC

At the 64th Capitol Hill Conference organized by the Middle East Policy Council, Karim Mezran from the American Institute in Rome delivered the following remarks about the uprising in Libya.  

The debate on Libya has been focused on, until very recently, why it happened: What were the genesis of this revolt? Was it natural? Was it spontaneous? Was it guided? Was it the fruit of somebody else’s intermingling with the domestic affairs? That has been really talked a lot about it. And been journal articles been written about strange connections here and there, but I would like to shy away from that, and get directly into what is happening today, what’s the situation now. Because I think that it is getting bad, and the situation on the ground is providing a stalemate, and it is important that we find a way out or a — propose a way out that does not imply the complete destruction of the country, as it seems for many people I talk to an almost inevitable trend: The choice has been made to go to war, and that’s the only possible solution.

What is happening is that we have the insurgents, the rebels, whatever you want to call them — the patriots, however you want to call them — mainly concentrated in Cyrenaica, so —enthusiastic, mostly young people and professionals and so on, supported by this international coalition led with a lot of enthusiasm by France and England, with much less enthusiasm followed by other actors, such as the United States. And dragging behind is the government of Italy, who has no clue about what’s going on in its former colony and its — in its most important country for its foreign exports, and it’s vaguely hanging around asking what to do and what not to do.

This support goes on with the French furnishing of weapons, of technology, now more of in the — in instructors. We know that there have been many more before, but officially they’re just coming in right now. Bombing are happening; raids are occurring in — not only on the coastal cities, but also on the interior, we have reports of bombings even down south through Sabha and other cities.

The situation is such that nevertheless, at this point, it seems to be clear that, as it is, the forces are with this — so this current support of the West, the transitional council of Benghazi, and then his troops and his volunteers are capable of holding on the part of Cyrenaica, not much more than that. These troops are undisciplined, poorly trained, disorganized, they control less than a third of the territory, much less so of the — of its resources. There is an incredible level of rivalries within its self-appointed members of the council. There is fighting. Haftar left, went, nobody knows really who controls the troop and so on.

The situation in Tripolitania is even more delicate than that. Strangely as it is, the troops have hold — the army has hold its grounds. The soldiers are fighting, the officers are not defecting to a large part, the much-vaunted part of mercenaries — they do constitute a part of these troops, but a minimal part. Gadhafi has shown that he has immense — a minimal, but a certain number of consensus around his government and — at least in the region. He has kept control — there’s something that has went overlooked is he has kept control over the southern part. The Fezzan is still largely in his hands, the troops of (unintelligible)— are intact, are there. Nobody knows what to do. They seems to be loyal to the government, but they’re still there, untouched.

This tactically means that Gaddafi has a way out down south from where money, weapons — the mercenaries can keep on coming. Therefore, means it is almost meaningless, the barrier on the northern part of the country, the embargo that is considered to be also an important aspect.

The tribes — what do we mean by “tribes”? In Libya, especially in Tripolitania — and the vast majority of the citizens of Tripolitania are beginning, while not supportive — and this has to be emphasized — of the regime, by no means, the vox populi is: If I have to trade Gadhafi for his butler, who’s a member of — who’s (from ?) Cyrenaica, to come over here and rule me, that is not acceptable.

There is a — the reorganization of guerrilla unity, there is a fragmentation in gangs and stuff that is going on in Tripolitania that is not an indication of positive outcome. There is also this belief, which is widely expressed — okay, I understand that we all know it, that in the Middle East the idea of conspiracy theory is big. We are all American-trained, and we tend to shy away from this. But when something is believed very much, it becomes a political factor. So we have to take into consideration.

In Tripolitania there is a strongly held belief that the coup — the revolt were spontaneous, but they triggered an attempted coup d’état that was organized month and month before by France, by betrayed traitors within the regime, and so the idea is that is a Cyrenaican affair. That’s something that happened there. They want to overturn the balance of power; we are not going to accept it. And that’s — this is a widely held belief against which you encounter difficulty in talking.

Some other people say that there is the perception within the entourage of Gadhafi, within his inner circle, that he could hold — that the war can be won, that there is no way that the West will intervene militarily in such an effective way to get to Tripoli and conquer the country. This I don’t think it’s true. There is a heavy pressure within the same circles and there is the realization that the era is finished, that the regime is over, that there has to be a way out that has to be found and/or created or proposed.

The fact that the troops are holding their grounds doesn’t mean much, and doesn’t mean much as well the rhetoric with which the regime is aggressively presenting itself in the press. That has always been the case, and it’s a very typical attitude of that regime and that personalities. You shoot very high, and then on the ground, you act differently. Therefore I don’t think that the dominant perception within the regime is that of a victory. It’s that there is a stalemate, and we can hold the ground until something happens. What happens — they’re not working for that, for anything to happen, they’re waiting for something to happen from the outside.

Another point that should be make is that, “rebus sic stantibus,” being this the situation on the ground, I do not think that, if even a victory, by whatever means — Gadhafi is killed, and the regime implodes, and the people from the transitional council of Benghazi are parachuted by the French into Tripoli and enter Tripoli victorious — that will mean the unification of Libya, that will mean a solution to the case, that will mean peace and that will mean reconstruction. I actually believe that that will mean the opposite.

We are — the scenario that I play in my mind and in that of my colleagues when we think about it is the Iraqi scenario, where you enter in with the belief that you remove Saddam Hussein, disband the army and bring democracy and everybody will be happy. Mutatis mutandis, that, OK, is a different — I know. But the same thing will then happen to Libya. You kill Gadhafi, kick it out, everybody will be happy, the army goes home, and the new administration can be set and the country will be unified and everything will go back to shape.

I don’t think that will happen. I’m actually highly pessimistic either in the case of a stalemate or in the case of a victory of — the sudden victory of the Benghazi council will solve anything. The other possibility, there is a victory of Gadhafi or holding out, I don’t even take it into consideration. There is in my opinion absolutely no way that the regime can survive. It has exhausted it’s — if it ever had a reason, it has been definitely exhausted.

Therefore, entering into the realm of policy prescriptions, I do not think, as well, and I do not have any information regarding a fact, that a serious attempt to negotiating or offering a negotiated way out for Gadhafi has been attempted. The African Union was not done properly and was not intended to happen in that direction. One has to understand the inner workings of this regime; one has to understand the dynamics of the elite group and the dynamics of Gadhafi as a man.

Never believe that Gadhafi was crazy; never believe that he was out of touch with reality. Gadhafi is like any other dictator; he needs — he wants to live and he doesn’t want to die as he says he wants to die. And that’s my personal belief.

A negotiated offer should be made that would save his face, but at the same time would prevent him from having any role in the future of Libya. That can only be done, and that is a role that I think only the United States can play. A negotiated message that would convince him to leave power to remain in Libya should be offered, in a way, in total isolation in Sirte, in Sabha, in wherever the debate is, but he has to remain in the country because the most important thing is that he abdicates.

Gadhafi has to leave his role and somebody has to — and this is a transitional situation which is fundamental that somebody takes the power on his behalf in Libya. A figure that is less tainted than he is, that’s not too much into the inner dealings of the regime, but it could hold the ground because the most important thing is that the army gets reassured that there will be somebody that will take the administration in power, that will maintain the structure, whatever structures there are, that will maintain the regularity of the army. There will be somebody, say, guaranteeing the continuation for a few days or a few weeks or a few months, you know, that will start then the negotiations with the transitional council of Benghazi.

At this point, history comes to help because Libya needs — Libya was made by the United Nations many, many years ago. And I think that there is a role for the United Nations at that point to intervene with a commission like the one Adrian Pelt headed or one that Adrian Pelt organized in the early — in the end of the ’40s and early ’50s that led to the independence of Libya.

There should be a commission that should be able to select, and the word is select, a number of representative Libyans from the whole region. People that have not been part of the regime but their — but have, because of their family, because of their tribal, because of their charisma, because of their role in society, enough to be able to represent the whole of the Libyan state, the whole of the Libyan nation. And therefore form a commission that will be in charge to draft a constitution.

A transitional government would be in place; this transitional government would run and rule for the (ordinated ?) administration which needs to be taken care of, and all of this under the protection of the United Nations. The new constitution would be draft, and then a certain period of time would be left for elections.

Now, all of this seems to be elaborate. I understand that this might be a difficult plan, this might be complicated in many aspects, but as we all try to say is that it’s the only alternative for diplomacy to play a role instead of war.

What we see is a tragedy that is going to happen is the complete destruction of what is left of Libya. And I think that if is not — if no negotiated way out is offered to the regime, that’s what we are going to see. We’re going to see a few weeks if not month of heavy bombing, of fighting, of stalemate, of breaking down of the civil order in most parts of Tripolitania, we are going to see what is a civil war, de facto, happening and going on.

One last point: Anytime I speak about this, there is a reaction which is like, it’s not in national interests of the United States to do that. And the second, the idea of leaving Gadhafi in Libya is alien to most of the diplomats in charge and to most of the politicians that talk about it.

I agree that there — at this point it’s not any vital interest of the United States. But at the same time, why — I hear also that there is no al-Qaida in Libya, that is a stupid thing to say that the revolt have al-Qaida behind it or the Islamists behind it. I agree that there is nothing like that. There are very few and scattered for this reason. But it doesn’t mean that an anarchic system, a civil war situation, a gang and criminal racketeering domination of parts of the country will not lead to the realization of sanctuaries, to the realization of training camps for terrorists or for Islamic organizations.

The continuation of the war would also mean the impossibility to maintain the great man-made river structure, which means very little water coming to the coastal cities, which means a water problem very quickly for over 2 (million), 3 million people. Food is already lacking in Tripolitania, there’s nothing like that. There are riots in the gas stations; there are empty shelves in the supermarket and in the stores. It is beginning to become a problem.

All of this to say that once you’re going to have this kind of collapse or this kind of picture, you’re going to have a huge humanitarian crisis right in the middle of the Mediterranean. And if Tunisia, Egypt, Italy, France and company are already complaining about the entering of a group of immigrants of 15 (thousand), 20,000 Tunisians, I wonder what will happen when there’re going to have 100,000 or 200,000 Libyans, starving, walking into Tunisia. Or walking into Egypt if that is going — if that picture is going to happen.

That will then become a vital interest of the West, at least, if not the United States.

Thank you very much.

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